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Highway-hugging bears retreat to Alaska woods, surprising trail runners

Craig Medred
A brown bear stands on it's hind legs at Rainbow Valley, along Turnagain Arm, on Sunday, May 13, 2012
Angela Stapleton| Mackenzie Images
A brown bear grazes along Turnagain Arm on Sunday, May 13, 2012. The bear was observed bluff-charging onlookers who crowded the bear, some of whom came within 10 yards of the wild animal.
Courtesy Helen O'Harra
A black bear walks along the busy Turnagain Arm Trail on May 13, 2012. The trail was packed with families celebrating Mother's Day.
Courtesy Charles Holmes
A brown bear grazing at Rainbow Valley, along Turnagain Arm, on Sunday, May 13, 2012.
Angela Stapleton| Mackenzie Images

After Chugach State Park rangers this week removed the carcass of the dead dog someone had shot and dumped along the Seward Highway just south of Alaska's largest city, they thought they'd solved the grizzly bear problem along the adjacent Turnagain Arm Trail. Apparently not.

Just ask Brian Harder. Newly arrived from Wyoming, he Wednesday experienced his first taste of what the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau likes to call "The Big Wild Life." The 51-year-old runner was 8 minutes from Potter Section House trailhead when he ran smack into a young grizzly. Harder knew it was eight minutes because he looked at his running watch. 

"I haven't seen a lot of brown bears in my day up close like that,'' he said. "It was like a large black bear" in Wyoming, only brown in color. 

Fortunately for Harder, this brown or grizzly bear -- as the Alaska Department and Fish and Game classes the animal in the north -- also behaved much like a black bear, a generally timid animal. 

"He turned and ran away,'' Harder said.

It was a good thing. Harder was unarmed. He is now thinking about getting a canister of bear spray to carry when he runs. It fits in the hand much like a relay-runner’s baton and could be useful in a close encounter. More than a few of those have been occurring along Turnagain Arm in recent days.

Harder was aware. Immediately after his encounter, he said, he called a friend to say, "Hey, you know that bear everyone has been talking about. I just saw it.''

Carcass and carrion

The bear everyone was talking about was the one prowling the Turnagain Arm beach on Sunday across from the popular McHugh Creek wayside and camping area on the Seward Highway just a few miles south of Anchorage. It caused a traffic snarl. A park ranger had to get the gawkers away so the bear could get off the narrow sliver of beach and back to the Chugach Park wilderness that starts on the opposite edge of the highway. 

"I think it was such a zoo because that (dog) carcass was in the ditch,'' said Matt Wedeking, the parks chief ranger.

Well, maybe that and the load of salmon someone dumped along the highway, apparently after cleaning out their freezer in anticipation of salmon to come. Bears are attracted to carrion any time of year, but especially in the spring when they are fresh out of their winter dens and hungrily roaming a landscape where there isn't much to eat.

Wedeking said that once rangers cleaned up the carrion, the bear disappeared from the roadside. Neither it nor others have been seen there since. But along the trail just back from the highway, there has been all sorts of bear activity. Runners competing in a trail race ran into a grizzly Monday. On Tuesday, it was a pair of young women.

"Two girls ran into it,'' Wedeking said. "It didn't do anything. It sat and looked at them.''

The girls started yelling at the bear. Someone heard the yelling and thought they were being attacked. The authorities were called. By the time they showed up, everyone was fine, and the bear was gone. 

'Use extreme caution'

An orange warning was posted at the McHugh entrance to the Turnagain Arm Trail. Below the silhouette of a bear's head, a hand-scrawled message read: "Brown bear approached hikers. 5/15 -- 7:30 p.m. Near Table Rock. Use extreme caution.''

No one was using the trailhead Wednesday afternoon. There were only a few cars in the popular and sometimes-crowded picnic area. A television crew that had heard about the bear was there filming, but there wasn't much to film. Back in the woods beyond the trailhead, it was quiet beneath the big cottonwood trees. 

A ridge blocked the sound of building tourist traffic on the nearby highway. The gurgling streams and the birds seemed almost noisy. The trail was largely dry and fine for hiking. Big puffy white clouds floated overhead in a blue sky. Graywacke cliffs stair-stepped steeply to peaks on the west ridge of McHugh Creek. Only minutes out of the parking lot, there were the still wet prints of bear tracks on a boardwalk.

It had come out of a wet muskeg, hiked for about 100 yards along the trail, and then darted into some spruce forest. It was the only thing moving on the trail until Harder, a lean fit man who just took a job as a physician's assistant at a local orthopedic center, ran by. He'd been in Alaska six weeks and was already making his fourth run on the Turnagain Arm Trail.

It was a pretty exciting one, he said.

Ursine smorgasbord

The Potter end of the trail where Harder started had no obvious bear sign, not that it matters. The bears could be anywhere. The south-facing slopes of the Chugach Mountains above Turnagain Arm are the next best thing to a ursine smorgasbord this time of year. The snow melts early. Sedges, grasses and horsetail emerge.

Moose, like the bears, move into the sun looking for food, too. The bears, in turn, know it won't be long before the moose began to calve. There's not much some bears like more than the taste of fresh calf. Wedeking is expecting more calls in the days ahead.

"Give it a couple weeks, and it will all be gone,'' he said. "Hopefully, we can get out of it without a scratch.''

It has been 17 years now since a grizzly killed backcountry runner Marcie Trent and her grown son Larry Waldron on the McHugh Creek trail in the worst bear attack in Anchorage history.

They stumbled onto a moose a bear had killed and cached not far back from where that trail intersects the Turnagain Arm Trail. The bear attacked to defend its kill. Trent and Waldron were unarmed. The bear was never found.

Jessy Coltrane, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said it is a good idea for hikers to carry bear spray -- a heavy-duty version of the Mace used by police. The spray has been shown to be a very effective bear deterrent, she said.

It's simple to use in the event of a close encounter -- aim it in the general direction of the bear and push down the button with your thumb. It's relatively inexpensive, about $50 a can. It's weighs considerably less than any bear gun. And if you accidentally shoot someone, or yourself, it’s not deadly.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatchcom